Contractures refer to the permanent tightening of nonbony tissues, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, or skin. It results in a loss of motion in the affected joints.
Contracture is different from spasticity, but they are often related. Spasticity is an abnormal increase in muscle tone, which can worsen the development of contractures.
Contracture Deformity of the Hand
Contractures may be caused by abnormalities of the structures surrounding a joint. These include:
- Chronic inflammation
Certain disorders that affect nerves and muscles almost always lead to contractures. For example:
Contractures are often also associated with spasticity resulting from injuries to the central nervous system, such as stroke or brain injury.
Factors that may increase your risk of contractures include:
The primary symptom is loss of motion in a joint. Pain can also be a major symptom.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. Your joints will be examined for restricted movement and range of motion.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with x-rays.
Maintaining and improving range of motion is important. Ultrasound is often used for large joint contractures. Physical therapy helps to increase mobility, joint elasticity, and muscle strength. Occupational therapy is used to maintain range of motion needed to perform tasks.
Some people also benefit from therapeutic massage.
Casts or Splints
Casts or splints help stretch the soft tissues surrounding the affected joint and can keep them in a more functional position. This method is often used when contractures are caused by nerve injury or immobility. Casts need to be changed regularly to reassess the joint position and avoid skin breakdown.
Medications to treat spasticity may help in the rehabilitation of contractures. This includes the use of botox and oral anti-spasm medications.
Nerve Blocks and Electrical Stimulation
In cases of severe spasticity, nerves to the affected muscles can be temporarily numbed with anesthetics. Alternatively, opposing muscles can be electrically stimulated. These actions can change the balance of forces across a joint. This therapy is often done with casting.
Prevention of contractures depends on the cause. After acute injuries or orthopedic surgery, contractures may be prevented by:
- Early movement
- Physical therapy
- Continuous passive motion (CPM) machines, which mechanically keep joints in motion
Aggressive medical treatment of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis may also delay or prevent contractures.
American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Fergusson D, Hutton B, et al. The epidemiology of major joint contractures: a systematic review of the literature. Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research. 2007:456:22-299.
Huckstep RL. Management of neglected joint contractures. Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research. 456:58-64, 2007 Mar.
Occupational therapy's role in skilled nursing facilities. The American Occupational Therapy Association website. Available at: https://www.aota.org/-/media/corporate/files/aboutot/professionals/whatisot/rdp/facts/factsheet_skillednursingfacilities.pdf. Accessed May 11, 2016.
Skalsky A, McDonald C. Prevention and management of limb contractures in neuromuscular diseases. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am. 2012 Aug;23(3):675-687.
Last reviewed May 2016 by Warren A. Bodine, DO, CAQSM
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.